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Saudi Arabia: Cyprus : The Road to Re-unification.

In 1958, when the first barbed-wire barricades were rolled out by the British colonial government across Ledra Street in the capital of Cyprus it seemed inevitable that the seeds of division would yield a bitter harvest of inter-communal conflicts, regional tensions and finally the partition of the whole island. Where minarets and churches once jostled happily together under the high, bright sun by day and crescent moon by night, garrisoned troops took up positions in machine-gun outposts and artillery turrets effectively dividing the inhabitants of Nicosia – Turkish & Greek Cypriot – into two distinct ethnic groups. Eventually, the age-old Greco-Turkish enmity found a new front line as the Hellenic and Ottoman civilizations collided once again along the UN-patrolled Green Line dividing northern and southern Cyprus.

This week demolition work commenced on part of the wall that has divided Nicosia and the whole island since 1974. When I visited the island recently, Melissa, a traditional Greek-styled cake shop in an old quarter of Nicosia, was still serving Turkish coffee in the same way it had for decades. Kateifi, Paclava and other freshly-baked cakes and sweets filled window displays. Hand-embroidered, white tablecloths covered the few rectangular tables where customers typically sat to enjoy their coffee. The day I was there only a few customers came in and seemed to pick up regular orders of sweets. Before the erection of the barriers and partition of the island, Melissa was a perpetual hub of social life where the street outside bustled with bicycles, pedestrians and taxi-cabs. However, in recent years the view from its gilded window frames has been starkly different.

The streets are empty now. A rusty bicycle leans against a lamp post. Solitary figures occasionally emerge from dilapidated workshops that now occupy the grand old buildings where boutiques once operated. Grass tussocks have sprouted around the ramshackle brick barriers and between the sand-bags filling the windows of the surrounding old Venetian-styled buildings. Crumbling walls display the faded markings of political slogans from long-since forgotten campaigns. Once buzzing with conversations about coup d’etat, the military junta and self determination, sagging electrical wires that run from telegraph pole to telegraph pole look like they have been gripped by a creeping paralysis. In fact the whole area seems to have been suspended in time resembling a Hollywood back-lot from a film from yesteryear.

My father, who was born in Cyprus in 1926, has fond memories of many times spent in coffee shops with Turkish and Greek Cypriot friends. As an electrician working for the Paphos Electrical Station (now a museum) he recalls three Turkish Cypriots with whom he had a close friendship. Some of the Turkish Cypriots joined him when he decided to migrate to Australia. To this day, on my father’s forearm, is a faded tattoo of a sailing ship and the words: ‘ Cyprus to Australia 1951’ in a pennant under the image. The small group of friends – Greek and Turkish Cypriot – all had the same tattoo pierced onto their forearms to commemorate their epic journey. As a boy I was fascinated by the likeness of the tattoos when the group would meet. As the years passed the tattoos faded and the group dwindled in size. Today, my father and one other man, a Turkish Cypriot, survive.

For my father Cyprus was never divided. Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots were never at war. After all, when my father lived in Cyprus there was a high degree of cohesion and integration between the two ethnic groups. In his mind this is how he left Cyprus and always remembered it. Of course, in reality when the yoke of colonial rule was finally shrugged off in 1960 the responsibility of forming a government representing both ethnic populations was great. Additionally, the geopolitical ambitions of America and Britain in the Middle East and the posturing of Greece and Turkey over territorial sovereignty in the Mediterranean contributed significantly to inter-communal tensions. Eventually, as the two communities drifted further apart ethnic enclaves grew as integrated villages fell in number. Nicosia was in time divided by a wall.

This week the wall has been coming down. While the demolition work is centered on a small part of the boundary of the historic Old City within the capital Nicosia, it has profound symbolism. Although official efforts to unify Cyprus have failed, on a municipal level Greek and Turkish Cypriots have been cooperating for years towards preserving and restoring the rich Ottoman, Venetian and Lusignan heritage of the Old City. The recent demolition work is paving the way for the opening of a pedestrian bridge on Ledra Street, a once thriving commercial centre. Importantly, Ledra Street is also the place where the first barbed-wire barricades were rolled out. It is hoped that this small pedestrian bridge will not only bring two commercial districts together but also reunify a divided city, an island and the hearts and minds of all Cypriots.

Harry Nicolaides is a Greek-Cypriot Australian writer born in Melbourne. He is currently teaching English in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Harry is also the nephew of the late Nicos Nicolaides, a Greek Cypriot Radio Station owner who assisted the then fugitive President Makarios (believed dead and fleeing an assassination attempt from the rogue generals who had executed a coup to overthrow him) by helping him to make a historic broadcast over a short-range radio transmitter encouraging the civilian population to resist the coup. The message, heard all over Cyprus and in neighboring countries, aroused widespread resistance to the coup.

Harry Nicolaides

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